Saturday, April 02, 2011

South Africa at AFA: Land Apart

It is not hard to see why cinematographer Sven Persson’s feature docu-hybrid ran afoul of state censors during Apartheid. Frankly, it is difficult to understand how it was produced in the first place. Simultaneously angry and eccentric, the Swedish-born South African-naturalized Persson’s Land Apart is a truly odd time capsule of South African in the 1970’s, which screens during the Anthology Film Archives’ upcoming United We Stand: South African Cinema during Apartheid retrospective.

Gary Miller is a fictional nightclub singer, who wants to set the world straight on his South African homeland after feeling stung by European criticism during a recent tour. Brian is a white liberal “researcher,” who in turn, wants to set the crooner straight. In between their politically charged verbal sparring, Brian gives Miller a vaguely Marxian history of South Africa and the development of Apartheid. An established nature filmmaker who worked with Ivan (Daktari) Tors, Persson periodically cuts away to scenes of indigenous wildlife. He also includes generous talking head interviews with political figures, both black and white, from across the political spectrum, including advocates of Apartheid, who not surprisingly come across quite poorly.

Apart was only previously released in a print completely butchered by the government censors. Considering how much they must have had to cut, it must have been more of a short subject than a feature. Perhaps they kept the explanation of the Afrikaners’ tenacious battlefield fighting techniques during the Boers Wars and a few of the unconvincing defenses of Apartheid from various government mouthpieces.

While the dramatic framing device increasingly approaches outright camp, the soundtrack has some groovy funkiness that will prick up many discerning ears. In his rarely seen director’s cut, Persson displays a subversive visual sensibility, juxtaposing scenes of jackals scavenging dead flesh with unvarnished images of township life. Clearly, Apartheid is now a settled controversy, but Apart’s Cliff Note history of South Africa will still likely be informative for many viewers. Dated to be sure, but still strangely engaging, Apart is definitely worth checking out next Sunday (4/10) and the following Thursday (4/14), while the United We Stand series begins this Friday (4/7) at AFA.